We know we need to save the whale to save the world because they are our allies in fighting the climate and biodiversity crises. We also know that a lot of amazing people are doing incredible work to gather the evidence we need to convince climate policymakers of this. But research into the climate role of whales isn’t yet as established as the research around other climate benefactors such as trees.
To address this, we at WDC decided to bring together scientists from all over the world to share their expertise and their projects, exchange ideas, support one another and help us identify where there are gaps in our collective knowledge.
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Identifying what we don’t yet know is as important as gathering what we do, because we can encourage researchers to submit proposals for projects whose findings will plug the knowledge gaps, then we can find funders for them. To date we have funded four projects and are actively looking to fund two major projects – watch this space!
So, three times a year, we bring together leading scientists from across the world in what we’re calling our Green Whale Symposium, and we hosted the latest one last month. As the coordinator of this collective, I’m incredibly inspired by how enthusiastic the researchers are in sharing ideas and working together to drive this area forward, they all seem to get a lot out of it, and I always get such positive feedback afterwards.
Attending were scientists from all around the world: Vicki James - WDC (UK) - Chair, Ed Goodall - WDC (UK), Regina Asmutis-Silvia - WDC (US), Isabel Avila - Universidad del Valle (Colombia), Dan Costa - University of California SC (US), Barbara Galletti - Centro de Conservación Cetacea (Chile), Steven Lutz GRID-Arendal (Norway), Heidi Pearson - University of Alaska Southeast (US), Joe Roman - University of Vermont (US), DJ Schubert – AWI, Craig Smith - University of Hawaii (US), Selina van Burken - The Rugvin Foundation (Netherlands), Martina Quaggiotto – University of Stirling (UK), Frank Zanderink - The Rugvin Foundation (Netherlands).
One of the projects we’re funding is collecting humpback whale poo in Alaska. The team reported a busy summer field season with a number of poo samples and hundreds of water samples taken across Alaskan fjords. This autumn and winter they will be busy analysing these samples to assess the type and concentration of nutrients that humpback whales provide through their poo, how far they disperse in the water, and how much phytoplankton growth this will stimulate, through a process known as the ‘whale pump’. Phytoplankton are tiny plant-like organisms that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In fact, these microscopic miracles absorb as much carbon dioxide as all the land-based ecosystems combined, including forests and rainforests, so you can start to see how important this research is.
Porpoise poo power
We heard from a researcher on a new project we’re funding in the Netherlands, examining the importance of harbour porpoise poo for phytoplankton growth. This is one of the first projects to look at the contribution of porpoises or dolphins (rather than whales) to the ‘whale pump’ mechanism. They have been busy collecting samples and are now undertaking the lab tests. Initial data is already showing that there is increased phytoplankton growth in greater concentrations of harbour porpoise poo. We will be announcing more about this project very soon.
Beetles and bears
Another scientist shared their research on how important whale carcasses are, this time not on the ocean floor, but on our coasts where they wash up as ‘dead strandings’. Terrestrial species rely on the food provided by a whale carcass - including polar bears for whom one stranded whale carcass can provide food for up to a year. Scavenging birds like condors would historically have fed extensively on whale carcasses, and are joined by skin-eating and bone-gnawing beetles, that are known to move into an area specifically to feed on whale carcasses when they arrive.
Because of the reduction of whale populations because of whaling, there has been a massive reduction in the number of natural strandings. This combined with the removal of carcasses by local authorities, means there has been an immense loss of this unique food source for the species that have relied on them. Condors have been forced to change their diets to land animals with some now travelling more than 50 miles from their nesting sites and crossing mountains ranges to find food on land.
Just as when a whale dies and sinks to the seabed as a ‘whale fall’, this research shows how important it is to allow whale carcasses that wash up on land, to decompose where they lie. This is the best way to ensure the wider ecosystem functions naturally, getting maximum benefits to all the species that rely on these coastal food bonanzas, so long as legal, health and public safety needs are fulfilled.
What was also exciting for everyone attending the symposium was the enthusiasm for all the work being done in this important area, the exchange of new ideas and knowledge, and especially the ways in which the group can collaborate on projects around the globe. Everyone involved is inspired by how we can use all this research to get better protection for whales, dolphins and porpoises, and ultimately save ourselves.
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